There are ways to stop new COVID variants entering SL – Experts and unionists

By Rathindra Kuruwita

Medical experts and health sector trade unionists yesterday criticised Deputy Director General of Health Services, Dr. Hemantha Herath for claiming that there was no mechanism to prevent the new COVID variant detected in South Africa from entering Sri Lanka.

Executive Director of the Institute for Health Policy (IHP), Dr. Ravi Rannan-Eliya told The Island yesterday that he disagreed with Dr. Herath’s assertion.

“Strict border security can substantially reduce the risk of new variants entering the community. Secondly, the Zero Covid approach with high testing can also detect the new variants that do get through early enough to have a chance of crushing them,” he said.

Dr. Eliya said that the countries that did both had managed so far not to be overwhelmed by new variants. New Zealand seemed to be on the verge of crushing the Delta spread. However, those that relied on just tough border security but didn’t fully understand the importance of testing, especially in Asia, largely failed to control Delta.

“Taiwan was one of them, but it did ramp up testing in response to a Delta outbreak and may have learnt its lesson in time,” he said.

Commenting on Sri Lanka, Dr. Eliya said the belief that the country could live with low levels of virus and opening its borders for tourists ruined any chance of quick recovery.

“We’ve thrown away our initial victories. Searching for new variants in the community now is pretty useless. As medical students we were taught that doctors must not order tests unless they made a difference to patient management. Looking for new variants is useless because by the time we detect them, it will be too late,” he said.

President of the College of Medical Laboratory Science (CMLS), Ravi Kumudesh told The Island that Dr. Herath’s statement was irresponsible. The Health Ministry had actively prevented an effective state run screening system at the ports of entry, he said.

“It’s universally acknowledged that protecting borders is important to prevent new variants from coming in. The Ministry took steps to ensure that we could not effectively screen people that come in. And now Dr. Herath says that there is nothing that can be done to prevent new variants from coming in. Why do we even need a Health Ministry?” Kumudesh asked.

The CMLS President said that tourists would not arrive in Sri Lanka if COVID was rampant in the country. People who could afford to travel and spend large quantities of money in Sri Lanka lived in countries that were relatively secure from COVID.

“Let’s look at China. Why would you assume Chinese tourists will come here? Why do you think the Chinese state will allow people to come here?” he queried.

Kumudesh said that about 50,000 people were affected daily by COVID-19. The current lockdown was a joke and everyone except the government seemed to know it, he said.

“Come to Colombo or any other big city and tell me if there is a lockdown. Even if we close the country for six months like this, there will be no benefit. We have just let go. We have to let god to decide. Sri Lanka had not been able to reap at least 20% of the benefits of lockdown,” he said.

Kumudesh said that the purpose of a lockdown had been lost as garment factories had remained open without its workers being tested. The lab technologists and other health sector unions had come forth to help the government to test all garment factory workers and issue results within days, he said.

“The government has so far not responded. It has also ignored our calls for providing hospitals with portable PCR testing machines and increasing testing to 100,000 a day”.

Dr. Herath was not immediately available for comment.

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